In a country famed for its beautiful scenery, it would take something special to be canonically named as one of Japan’s best scenic views. There are, however, three places which hold this honour — the sandbar of Amanohashidate, Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima and the pine-clad islands of Matsushima.
Collectively referred to as the Nihon Sankei, the three earned their status through the works of neo-confucian scholar Gaho Hayashi and his book Observations About the Remains of Japan’s Civil Affairs. Whilst travelling on foot throughout Japan in the mid-17th century, Hayashi was especially touched by the views these three provided and heaped unqualified praise upon them as the most visually rewarding places in Japan. Much has changed in Japan over the ensuing 350 years, but the trio have maintained their visual splendor amid the changing landscape of industrial evolution and hold as much value now as they did then. This article will focus upon the first of the three mentioned — Amanohashidate.
As with so many places in Japan, Amanohashidate comes with its own intriguing mythological background. Legend states that Izanagi-no-Mikoto, who together with Izanami-no-Mikoto created the first lands of Japan, built a bridge connecting the earth to the heavens. The Chinese characters in the name Amanohashidate roughly translate to “Bridge to Heaven”. However, the bridge collapsed whilst he slept and, overtime, took the form that we see today.
The truth of things is, of course, slightly more of this world; Amanohashidate is a three-kilometre long sandbar which cuts north-to-south, crossing the mouth of Miyazu Bay in the northern part of Kyoto prefecture. For those wanting to take in this renowned site, there are actually three different available viewing areas to choose from: one to the north (Kasamatsu Park), one to the south (Amanohashidate View Land) and one from the east (Sesshu’s View Point).
Kasamatsu Park can be reached by cable car or chairlift, which takes 5 minutes and costs ¥330 one way or ¥660 return. The way up to the park is especially enjoyable in late March/early April, when the cherry trees that flank the chairlift route are in bloom and you find yourself floating by the beautiful, iconic flowers of the Japanese spring.
From up-top visitors can enjoy the Rising Dragon View (Shoryukan), but the park is more notable as the origin of the Matanozoki style of looking at the sandbar, which involves turning your back on it and bending down to look at the view through your legs, therefore switching the sea and the sky around. There is also a small gift shop, which offers refreshments and souvenirs, and the access point up to Nariaiji Temple via. a twenty minute shuttle bus ride costing ¥350 each way.
The southern viewpoint is from Mount Monju, and takes the form of a small theme park called Amanohashidate View Land. Comprised of amusements varying from archery and mini-golf through to go-karts and an 8.5 metre-high roller coaster, View Land is a good choice for families with young children who may not be inspired by the view of the sandbar alone. Tickets to enjoy the rides/amusements cost ¥100 each, with a strip of 11 tickets being available for the cost of 10.
The view from this direction, known as the Hiryukan or "Flying Dragon View", is more popular than its northern cousin, and can be accessed by cable car or monorail. The lifts and monorail tickets are only available as a return trip and cost a little more than the ride up to Kasamatsu Park at ¥850 per person (¥450 for primary school children and younger, with further discounts for the disabled), though that price does include entry to View Land.
Finally, there is the eastern viewpoint, Sesshu’s Viewpoint. This viewpoint is named after painter Sesshu Toyo, whose 16th century work View of Ama-no-Hashidate (which can be seen in the Kyoto National Museum) was painted from this angle. It’s by far the least popular of the three as it is not conveniently located to any of the local train stations and involves a short trek by foot up a mountainside, though some may want to try it in mid-to-late April, when the trip can be combined with viewing the 1,000 pink flower blossoms which bloom around the torii gates on the mountain sides around Shishizaki-Inari Shrine.
Whilst tradition dictates that the best way to experience Amanohashidate is from an elevated position, there are also ways to enjoy it from sea level. Firstly, visitors can use a small dirt road to go from one end of sandbar to another. Taking around 45 minutes on foot, or around 15 minutes by bicycle, traversing Amanohashidate in this manner is a peaceful experience, in part thanks to the thousands of pine trees which line it and provide a green canopy of tranquility. This can be a wonderful way to spend an hour exploring the area; potentially longer if one takes advantage of the multitude of white sand beaches that make up the eastern coast and turn into busy swimming spots in the humid Kyoto summer. You can also see the Isoshimizu Fresh Water Well, which is classified as one of the best springs and rivers in Japan.
Another enjoyable distraction is available in the form of the Amanohashidate Sightseeing Boat. Running back and forth between the north and south of the area, the journey takes around 12 minutes and gives some beautiful views of both the beautiful clear blue waters and the sandbar itself. The boats depart from the docks near Chionji Temple (south) or Motoise Kono Shrine (north) and tickets cost ¥530 one way (¥270 concessions), or ¥960 return (¥480 concessions), with trips running roughly every 30 minutes (every 20 minutes at weekends) from 8:30am until 6:30pm.
Sadly, despite its status as one of Japan’s greatest views, Amanohashidate is not one of the easiest, or cheapest, places to get to. The most basic route is via the JR Hashidate Ltd. Express between Kyoto and Amanohashidate Stations (2 hours, ¥4,000 or ¥1,380 for JR Pass holders, as the lines north of Fukuchiyama are nor ran by JR). A slightly cheaper, but also slightly longer, option is to take the JR Ltd. Express from Kyoto Station to Fukuchiyama Station before transferring to the Kyoto Tango Railways train to Amanohashidate. This will take between 2 to 2 1/2 hours and cost ¥3,250 to ¥3,980, depending on whether you choose to save time by limited express trains over the local ones; once again, JR Pass holders won’t be able to use their pass north of Fukuchiyama. The cheapest of all options, however, is the Tankai Bus service, which runs twice a day at a cost of ¥2,700 one way, and takes 2 1/2 hours.
Whichever route you decide to take, what awaits you is the chance to tell people that you have taken in one of the three greatest scenic views in one of the most scenic countries in the world.